Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace–nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods, and destruction. I think it’s important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable. Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves–we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature–without connecting with the many pieces of nature, we are in danger of misunderstanding her, of not seeing the whole, and not having a whole relationship with her.
Each year, I lead somewhere between 6-8 plant walks in my local area and the broader region. A lot of the work of a plant walk focuses on shifting perspectives, on reseeing “weeds” or other undesirable plants in a new light. One of the plants that I find myself always teaching about–and learning about–is poison ivy, or, as some affectionate plant people like to call her, “sister ivy.” I have a great deal of respect for Sister Ivy and find her to be a wonderful teacher and plant ally. This doesn’t mean I am going to go roll around in a mat of poison ivy, but I am going to respect and honor her. And so today, I’d like to share some of the teachings of this particular plant ally–for she has much to teach.
About Poison Ivy and Identification
Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant native to the Eastern Part of North America. (You’d be surprised with the number of people who think it is “invasive” because in our current ill-suited language about plants, invasive = bad). Poison ivy has multiple forms. First, it can grow as a carpet of smaller plants rising up from the ground (either in a forest setting or even in a field of tall grass). When it grows like this, it is actually a trailing vine, but you might not see the vine as it may be buried in the soil. It can also row into a large bush (which is rare where I live, but not rare in other places) and the bush can be up to three feet high. Finally, it can grow as a vine up a tree (and blend in well with the tree leaves). In this way, poison ivy is extremely adaptable and resilient; she has many forms and disguises, and can blend in well. Given her teachings, this is very appropriate.
Some old adages help us identify poison ivy:
- Leaves of three, let it be. (Of course, there are lots of plants with three leaves that are not poison ivy, like raspberry, but it is still a well-known statement).
- Three leaves and shiny. (Again, lots of plants that fit this description).
- Hairy vine, no friend of mine. (This, to me, is more useful because in my ecosystem hairy vines do equal poison ivy).
- Berries white, run in fright” or “Berries white, danger in sight” (This is also useful; it can refer to a number of other kinds of plants, but none of them are good – Doll’s Eyes and poison sumac are two others that are very toxic that come to mind).
The way that I teach poison ivy identification has to do with the pattern of the leaves (see my drawing to the right). This pattern is very distinct for poison ivy but some leaves display it more readily than others. I created a graphic to help you remember. Essentially, most poison ivy has two mittens (with thumbs facing outward) and a central mitten. Some plants may have more than one thumb, but the main thumb is the most distinct. Some may have the barest hint of a thumb, but it is still there.
Now, we’ll move to look at what I see as poison ivy’s three main teachings. Ironically, all of them speak to challenges of our present age: awareness, land defense, and climate change. At the end, I’ll also talk a bit about the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis (and how to deal with it!).
In reading a book called Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty, he offers a taste of how humans could once “read” the landscape in great detail. In the case of Gatty’s work, re-learning some of how to read the natural landscape helps with navigation and finding one’s way. The challenge is that most humans, at least here in the US, have lost their ability to be keenly aware of their surroundings. We don’t know how to quietly observe or be present, our attention spans are much shorter, and we’ve lost a lot of human wisdom surrounding interacting with the natural world. A lot of time, people pay very little attention to where they are going or what is happening in their ecosystem (and they may have headphones, eyes glued to screens, and so on).
Poison ivy doesn’t tolerate such behavior. She asks us to be present with each moment. She asks us to observe, to pay attention, to be aware. If we are aware, we can avoid the more intense lesson she offers: that of the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis we are all so familiar with. That poison ivy is awareness medicine was taught was first given to me years ago by my herbal mentor, Jim McDonald, and it began helping me begin to see poison ivy in a new light. When you start observing and paying attention to Poison Ivy, it changes the way you interact with the world.
Because Poison Ivy takes multiple forms, she really demands awareness in a variety of ways. Even as an experienced wild food forager, herbalist, and druid, I sometimes make a mistake and Poison Ivy teaches me a powerful lesson. For example, one year I was harvesting beautiful St. John’s Wort to make into tinctures and infused oils. I was in this tall grass in a field with a friend, happily harvesting away, paying attention only to the St. John’s Wort plants. And then we looked down, and we realized that about a foot lower tucked away in the grass was poison ivy. I slathered myself in fresh jewelweed and did get a bit of the rash, but it wasn’t too bad. Just enough for me to remember to pay attention.
Poison Ivy’s climbing form is particularly adept at shapeshifting and in enforcing this lesson. Her climbing vine is distinct, but can often blend right into the wood of a tree (or be climbing up the opposite side of the tree and you don’t see it). Her leaves, then, literally blend into the leaves of whatever tree she is climbing. This means you need to not only keep an eye on the ground but also an eye above you. I’ve had numerous occasions where I failed to look up and had a poison ivy branch brush my face. Fall brings yet another lesson from her climbing form. These higher branches have leaves that turn a beautiful red, and then, as leaves are apt to do, drop. So if you are walking around barefoot, or even deciding to rake leaves and jump in them, you can be in for a surprise a day or two later. Knowing where these vines grow, then, is part of the knowledge of the natural landscape that poison ivy teaches.
Sister ivy demands that we pay attention to our surroundings, that we be more alert and more aware. This is awareness medicine, and it is a powerful and potent lesson for each of us in an age of distractions.
Defending the Land
Discussion of poison ivy as awareness medicine directly ties to her second powerful lesson: that of defense. Poison ivy defends the land, particularly delicate ecosystems, and keeps humans out. Poison ivy is much more dominant in North America today than it used to be for a number of reasons. One of these is that she is an edge plant that takes advantage of disruption. Humans have caused such rampant ecological destruction and environmental disruption that poison ivy has grown much more dominant in the ecosystem.
I see the rampant growth along the edges of wild spaces as a defensive act on the part of the land herself. If you look at where and how poison ivy grows, you’ll start to see a pattern: edge spaces, tree lines, along suburban homes, along the edges of the old forests that still stand. Poison ivy sends a strong “Keep out” message to all who are willing to see and pay attention. You might think of this like a “No Trespassing” sign. I remember this lesson well when I was visiting Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie a few years ago. Every forest on that island was surrounded with a 30′ mat of poison ivy. Like its own kind of “unwelcome” mat. I, and my companions, honored this forest’s request and stayed out. I’ve also seen this a lot with ancient trees–there is often a poison ivy vine growing up them–nobody is going to want to cut it down. I’ve also witnessed this many times all along the edges of suburbia. Where the chemical-drenched lawn ends, there is poison ivy as the first line of defense for the forest.
Sister ivy is the defender of the wild spaces.
Climate Change and Potency
Not only is there a lot more poison ivy present in the world today due to disruption, but researchers have also found that poision ivy is gaining in power as Carbon Dioxide levels globally rise. More CO2 makes poison ivy vines more abundant; increasing their growth and biomass–they have doubled their growth rate over the last 50 years. Further, as CO2 levels climb in our world, so too do the levels of Urushiol, the toxin within poison ivy’s sap that irritates human skin. According to a follow-up study, with the rise in atmospheric carbon, not only does urushiol increase but poison ivy’s chemical balance changes, meaning that its potency has doubled since 1960 and will continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. In other words, the more that the human race dumps CO2 into the atmosphere, the more of a warrior poison ivy becomes.
Sister Ivy offers this a direct message from the earth to stop, find a new path, and live once again in harmony with nature.
Poison Ivy Dermatitis
The vines and leaves of poison ivy contain increasing amounts of Urushiol, which, when touched by the skin, causes an allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) to the affected skin. Urushiol is found in the clear liquid sap of the Poison Ivy plant; many animals can eat the leaves or interact with the plant without trouble, but it certainly affects humans. Some people are more susceptible to the urushiol than others; further, the more exposure one has, the more intense the skin reaction can be. This is why some people think they are immune–they might just not have had a lot of contact, and one day, they’ll get poison ivy dermatitis all over them (as an herbalist, I’ve heard quite a few stories of this happening!) There are also people who appear to be totally immune to dermatitis.
A simple witch hazel infusion of jewelweed is a wonderful remedy to the poison ivy rash (and I described how to make it earlier this year). Because Urushiol is oil-based, it is imperative when treating poison ivy rash to treat it with something that does not spread the oils further (like scratching does). The witch hazel infused with jewelweed is great because it dries out the rash (witch hazel) and promotes healing (jewelweed). Let’s just say with all of my adventurings in the woods each year, I end up getting poison ivy fairly regularly and this always does the trick. Applying it 4-6 times a day should clear up poison ivy within a few days and prevent it from spreading.
I see Sister Ivy as an incredibly important teacher for the 21st century. She reminds us that we need to pay attention to the world around us, that we need to be present her and now in the moment. She reminds us that nature is all pretty flowers and fuzzy bunnies: nature is wild, and powerful, and she seeks to defend herself. Poison ivy is a part of nature that is responding aggressively to the damage we are causing this earth. She is a warrior, and, like any warrior, can be a dangerous foe or fierce protector. I like to encourage you to build respectful relationships with this plant. If you respect her, she will respect you, and you may learn a great many things.